Ben Taub ER Conducts More Than 100,000 HIV Tests Through General Screening

"We want to make getting an HIV test as easy as getting a glucose exam for diabetes or a cholesterol test for heart disease," says Dr. Shkelzen Hoxhaj, chief of emergency medicine at Ben Taub General Hospital.
For the past three years, Ben Taub Hospital has been giving routine HIV tests in the emergency room. The hospital has now conducted more than 100,000 tests, with some promising results.

The testing program in the Ben Taub emergency room simply bundles the HIV test in with other blood tests.

It doesn’t matter what brought you there — chest pain, broken leg, or a cut — if you need to have blood drawn while in the ER, the blood will automatically be tested for HIV, unless you explicitly opt out.

Dr. Shkelzen Hoxhaj says less than five percent of patients refuse.

That’s because the approach makes an HIV test seem like part of normal medical care, which it is:

“There’s a stigma attached to HIV still where people feel that if you’re approaching them to be tested, you think that they’re at high risk, or they must be very sexually promiscuous or they must be using drugs, which is not the case. But I think if you make it the way we do it, which is “opt out” testing, it destigmatizes it. So that people don’t feel that they’re being singled out.”

Since the program began, doctors have found 729 new cases of HIV this way.

That’s one half of one percent of all the ER patients tested.

Dr. Hoxhaj says patients who get a positive result are counseled right away and enrolled in HIV treatment programs at the Harris County Hospital District.

“It’s important that we find out who does and who doesn’t, because there’s a certain percentage who don’t know they have infection and it’s that group of patients that has HIV that doesn’t know they have it that spreads most of the infection to other folks.”

Hoxhaj says the good news is that over the three years of testing in the ER, the rates of HIV found have dropped.

He concludes that the testing may be working and those who find out they do have HIV are taking steps to avoid passing on the virus to others.

From the KUFH Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...